A week ago, as tensions with North Korea reached dangerous levels, Donald Trump sat down for an interview in which he sent an important message to our adversary and the world.
Asked specifically about redirecting U.S. military forces towards the Korean peninsula, the president said, “I don’t want to talk about it. We are sending an armada, very powerful.”
As is often the case with Trump, the message was disjointed – he didn’t want to talk about what he was doing, except to tell everyone he was dispatching a Navy “armada” – but we nevertheless got the point. Indeed, the president wasn’t the only one making this message: Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer all said publicly, over the course of a few days, that the United States had dispatched an aircraft carrier and its support ships to head towards the Korean peninsula.
This was, the administration told the world, a show of force, intended to be a deterrent.
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“Despite what the White House, and the National Security Advisor, and the Defense Secretary all said, the USS Carl Vinson was not steaming toward North Korea. It was not steaming north toward the Korean peninsula. In fact, while they were all saying that the USS Carl Vinson was steaming toward North Korea, it was 3,000 miles away, steaming south, in the opposite direction.”
Sure, there are times in which public misdirection is deemed necessary for security reasons. When then-President George W. Bush visited troops in Iraq on Thanksgiving in 2003, for example, the White House briefly told reporters false information about the president’s whereabouts.Last week’s developments in the Pacific were not in any way similar. The president and his administration, during heightened tensions with an enemy that has nuclear weapons, told the world more than once that an aircraft carrier strike group was en route to North Korea, when in fact, there was no aircraft carrier strike group en route to North Korea.
And while the standoff with North Korea created a potential crisis, the Trump administration’s rhetoric has created a different kind of problem: a crisis of credibility. It is increasingly difficult to imagine how anyone – friend or foe – can accept the White House’s rhetoric at face value, even about matters as important as national security.